They said it couldn’t be done, but the hapless folks behind the #NeverTrump movement have actually pulled it off: They’ve managed to find an even more obscure and unlikely standard-bearer for their cause—defending Republican orthodoxy against the party’s embarrassing nominee—than their previous champion. Back in late May, #NeverTrump stalwart Bill Kristol floated National Review writer David French as an independent presidential candidate who could rally conservatives who find Trump to be too obnoxious, too gaudy, too overtly racist, or just too plain Trumpian, to tolerate. It seemed like a bizarre choice, since French had no political experience and no national profile aside from his writing for the conservative magazine. Even at National Review, French was a second-stringer compared to some of the magazine’s star writers.
Ever since French politely declined to take this flying leap into national politics, the search for a third-party alternative has continued. And now the increasingly desperate anti-Trump forces, led by Republican consultant Rick Wilson, have settled on Evan McMullin, whose singular virtue is that he makes David French look like a rock star by comparison. Before his candidacy was reported this morning by ABC News and other outlets, McMullin had a grand total of 135 twitter followers, as against 43,700 followers for French.
The sheer obscurity of both French and McMullin points out perhaps the major flaw of the #NeverTrump cohort: This is a political movement without any politicians of note behind it, or any mass appeal to speak of. #NeverTrump is a rallying cry for pundits and consultants, but it has nearly zero resonance for the Republican base. What’s most important about the McMullin candidacy is that it proves how deeply its proponents misunderstand the very party they want to defend.
McMullin, who’s 40, does have an intriguing resume—one that shows the ideal #NeverTrump candidate is, apparently, an establishment functionary. He’s worked as a policy director for House Republicans (where, according to colleagues, he had a low profile), as a CIA operations officer, and as an investment banking associate at Goldman Sachs. His CIA credentials give weight to his major reason for opposing Trump: Like many people versed in foreign policy, McMullin believes that Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry is not just morally objectionable but also harms America’s interest by making it harder to win allies in the Islamic world. He’s been an extensive critic of Trump on Facebook and Twitter, writing, for example, that “Trump’s exploitation of Americans’ security fears is cowardly.”
But while such stirring sentiments seems to have attracted Rick Wilson along with some disaffected Republican donors, they don’t distinguish McMullin from tens of millions of other Americans—including Hillary Clinton. McMullin’s other major credential is also biographical: He’s Mormon, a member of the religious group that Trump has struggled to win over. In theory, if McMullin is on the ballot (and ballot access is a whole ‘nother problem at this late date), he could cost Trump six electoral votes in the Mormon heartland of Utah, where polls are showing an unusually tight race in a state where Republicans usually win by a landslide.
In the grand scheme of things, what does McMullin have to offer, aside from representing the small slice of Republicans who can’t come around to Trump? If mainstream Republicans knew how to defeat Trump, they would already have done so in the primaries, with far more viable characters like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Now it’s up to Clinton. And given her polling lead not just in traditional swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania but also in Republican-dominated states like Georgia, a Trump loss in Utah—probably the zenith of what McMullin’s candidacy could hope to achieve—would only be icing on the cake. It’s virtually impossible to imagine this election coming down to Utah.
Even more than the David French misadventure, the Evan McMullin gambit shows that the #NeverTrump faction is little more than a desperate flailing rump within the Republican Party, one with little or no change of influencing the party’s future. It’s notable that #NeverTrump was utterly unable to convince anybody with actual political experience to mount a campaign. (Both Mitt Romney and Senator Ben Sasse rejected entreaties from Kristol to run against Trump). With the exception of Ted Cruz, virtually everyone in the Republican orbit with future national ambitions has either endorsed Trump or kept quiet. And even Cruz, who’s betting his future on a disastrous Trump defeat, didn’t take up the chance to become the #NeverTrump candidate.
It’s not just the lack of support from actual politicians that’s problematic. Consider the almost inconceivable: What would happen if #NeverTrump’s gambit actually succeeds, and McMullin somehow gained enough traction, in Utah or some other closely contested state, to cost Republicans the White House in a narrow election? Wouldn’t Trump supporters (who now make up the majority of Republicans) then have good cause to see McMullin and his compatriots as spoilers who stabbed the party in the back? If you wanted to promulgate a Dolchstoßlegende (or stabbed-in-the-back-myth) among the Trumpkins, wouldn’t McMullin make the perfect villain? As a CIA spook and Goldman Sachs man, McMullin would confirm the Trumpian idea that the establishment rigged the system so he couldn’t win. The likely outcome would be a party base much more committed to Trump, who’d be able to wear a martyr’s mantle with genuine plausibility.
It’s easy to admire the political courage of #NeverTrump. In standing up to Trump’s bigotry, these Republican dissidents are doing a service not just to their party but to America. Or, at least, they’re trying to. But however admirable they might be ethically, the #NeverTrump faction has shown little evidence of political intelligence. If you’ve lost battle after battle to Trump, it just might be because you’re not very smart.